Following Gary Klein on his search to find out how insight happens is a pleasurable, even mind-blowing experience. In Seeing What Others Don’t, Klein begins with an open mind and decides that he needs to stay out of the laboratory of puzzle-solving, described in the chapter on how not to search for insights. His perspective is based on what has been my professional practice for almost two decades: performance improvement. Klein says that PI is a combination of reducing errors & uncertainty PLUS increasing insights. Too often in organizations, management only focuses on reducing errors. Klein cites the overemphasis on practices like Six Sigma over the past 30 years as being detrimental to overall innovation; “Six Sigma shouldn’t be abandoned, it needs to be corralled.”
In examining 120 cases, Klein found that there are three main paths that insight can follow. [My overview lacks the depth of Klein’s explanations, so please read the book if you really want to understand this.] Klein’s Triple Path Model neatly describes the phenomena of gaining insights. I find the connection path the most interesting because I think it can be enhanced through practices like personal knowledge mastery. Also interesting is that gaining insight is about changing one’s stories. We have stories that we use to explain why we do things. These can be good anchors that give us the right perspective on a situation or they can weigh us down and stop us from gaining insight. For example, the prevailing theory of miasma stopped researchers from seeing that cholera was waterborne or that yellow fever was mosquito borne. It was when some people paid attention to the contradictions, that they gained insight. Once you have insight, that’s it. Klein quotes the author Hilary Mantel; “Insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.” Which of course can make those with new insights seem like such a bother to the status quo.
Klein has some advice on how “to strengthen the up arrow”, or improve insight. He sees stories as a strong way of sharing insight. Loosening the filters through which information and knowledge pass in the organization is another suggestion. I’d call that democracy. He also says that organizations need to increase their willpower to act on insight. This takes a shift in the corporate mind-set.
Klein counters some of the contemporary perceptions around insight in the research community.
The heuristics-and-biases community has provided us with a stream of studies showing how our mental habits can be used against us and make us look stupid and irrational. They don’t offer a balanced set of studies of how these habits enable us to make more discoveries.
I see the examples in this book as a collective celebration of our capacity for gaining insights, a corrective to the gloomy picture offered by the heuristics-and-biases community. Insights help us escape the confinements of perfection, which traps us in a compulsion to avoid errors and in a fixation on the original plan or vision.
I strongly recommend Seeing What Others Don’t, which provides new perspectives for a wide range of disciplines and practices. Finally, one of the best features of this book is the Story Index, making each one easy to find, even in the paper copy.